To slay a Dragon.
The call comes in at 3.56 AM.
By 4.30 AM, Sherine is standing at the airport, head burrowed into the collar of her winter coat, trying to keep the chill out of her bones. She isn’t completely sure why she’s there. But she figures that, considering everything her brother has done for her, picking up his best friend, Dev Malhotra, at the airport is the least she can do.
She spots the familiar sable black hair at a distance and watches the tall man as he carefully makes his way towards her, a travel case slung over his shoulders. Dev was still one of the best looking men of her acquaintance and the seven years since she has last seen him, seem to dissolve into nothingness, as she watches him make his way over, making female heads turn.
Dev is dressed in blues and grays, his face half covered in a muffler. Catching sight of Sherine, he grins. Or at least, his eyes do. The rest of his face is completely obscured by the pale blue wool.
“My scarf. “ His eyes automatically flit to the navy blue scarf around Sherine’s neck. It’s one of the things they’ve always fought about. An expensive, one of a kind piece by Dev’s favorite designer.
“Stop coveting what isn’t yours, dumbass.” Sherine gives him a smug grin.
“One of these days princess, I’m getting that scarf off you.”
The years have added a certain maturity to his usually cocky tone. Sherine finds herself smiling back.
“Dev. Why the hell are you back in India?” She asks, by way of greeting. Dev shrugs and the muffler slips off his face. He looks thin, the cheek bones sticking out of his face. Gone is the handsome prince of her adolescent fantasy. Dev now looks like a caricature of misery.
Sherine tries not to show her surprise, but Dev interprets the look on her face.
“Not everything lasts, does it princess?”
He grins and its terrifying.
Sherine doesn’t expect Dev to move to his family estate at once. So she carefully prepares the guest bedroom, laying out towels and blankets on the bed. She can hear the shower running and a few seconds later the door opens.
Sherine watches Dev as he flits about the room, his sweatpants riding low on his thin waists.
“Paris, huh?” She asks casually, plopping down on the bed. Dev shrugs on a pale grey shirt and settles, cross legged, next to Sherine.
“ Yup. Paris, Seville and with a bit of Bulgaria thrown in there somewhere. How long has it been princess? Five years?” he asks casually, reaching for a towel and tuning it through the damp strands of his hair. The atmosphere is strangely comfortable.
“Seven. I saw you at your sister’s wedding.” Sherine reminds him, watching the tiny drops of water glistening on his hair. Dev has lost tremendous amounts of weight. He looks haggard and sick.
“Are you alright, Dev?” Sherine blurts out. She then inwardly berates herself. It really is none of her business.
Dev, however, is far from offended. He gives Sherine another one of his grins. Sherine finds it disturbing, to say the least.
“I’m fine, princess. Did your boyfriend finally pluck up his courage and propose?”
When Sherine leaves for work, Dev is still asleep. She expects him to be gone by the time she gets back. But when she does return home, tired and exhausted, she finds Dev in the kitchen, flipping something in a frying pan.
“I made dinner.” He calls out.
Sherine is dumbstruck for a second, not entirely sure how to react.
“Uh…” Is all she manages.
“Stop dallying there, princess. Come in and take a seat.” Dev waves his arms vaguely, indicating the chair near the dining table. Sherine frowns but settles down. She is greeted by the smell of well cooked potatoes and some rich gravy.
She waits till after dinner before asking Dev what his plans are.
“I was hoping I could stick around for a while. My parents don’t know I’m back in India. I’d like to keep it that way. “
Sherine doesn’t ask why. Instead she ladles some gravy, watching Dev out of the corner of her eyes.
Sherine has always had a weird sort of attraction for Dev.
She knows the guy feels it too, no matter how much he tried to deny it . Back in the day, they’d had play dates together. Hours of being holed up in toy rooms and attics, trying to keep their voice down while the adults enjoyed their cocktail parties and dinners together.
Although they’ve never actively acted on any of them, Sherine feels the inexplicable pull, whenever she goes within a few feet of the guy.
At the time, it made sense. Dev was very good looking, funny and wickedly smart. Together, the pair of them had been a delight to watch, and everyone had assumed that they would end up together.
After all, Sherine’s brother Rohan and Dev were best buds and both families were wealthy and successful.
Sherine herself had followed Dev around like a lost puppy ever since kindergarten, five-year age gap notwithstanding.
Dozens of wealthy handsome men had pursued her over the years , some of them wealthier and better looking than Dev. But, she had never felt even one tenth of the attraction she had felt for Dev.
Sherine remembers the late night parties, the raised alcohol levels and the lowered inhibitions. They hadn’t actually gotten together but damn, they’d come close. Dev transferred his vibrant energy and sense of humor to their relationship and more often than not, Sherine had found herself laughing and grinning into the air, happy and content.
The memories make her tingle.
“How’s he holding up?” Rohan calls Sherine just as she takes a break, getting a drink at the water dispenser. Sherine blinks, momentarily unsure who he was talking about.
“Who?” She asks, watching the light blink from blue to red and then back again. She frowns, not sure what the color scheme means.
Sherine looks up and shrugs. She forgets that her brother can’t see her through the phone.
“He says he needs some time to get his life together. I didn’t push him to say more.” She says casually. Rohan sighs.
“Okay, Sherine. Just… just make sure he’s fine. “
Sherine stares after a coworkers back, an odd sense of foreboding in her mind.
Dev, Sherine learns, has resigned from his job as a financial consultant. To say that it shocks Sherine is a bit of an understatement.
“Resigned? What the hell dude, are you crazy?” She splutters when Dev informs her of the fact the next night at dinner. Dev doesn’t reply at once, opting to stare unnervingly at Sherine for a few moments.
“Why are you still single, Sher?”
The question hits her broadside and for a few moments Sherine forgets what she’s been thinking about. She blinks.
“I… I’m single because I want to be.” She mutters.
Sherine feels herself bristling with indignation. Was he implying that she was too old to be single?
“Are you telling me I’m past the age for a man to find me attractive?!”
Sherine doesn’t see what’s coming until she’s knocked out of the chair and on the floor, her lips crushed against Dev’s. She is too shocked to actively respond, her eyes wide and stunned. Dev pulls away after a moment and grins again. By then, Sherine’s fingers are clutching the front of Dev’s shirt, her toes curling into the thick brown carpet underfoot.
“I’ve been wanting to do that from the time I landed. “ Dev says, casually. Sherine keeps staring at him, not sure what just happened. The cogs in her mind, rusty from disuse, are turning very slowly. Too slow for her to get her bearings.
She gets up and moves to her bedroom.
“What about your wife?” Sherine finally wills herself to ask.
It’s a Sunday morning and the pair of them are out for breakfast at one of the small cafe’s near Sherine’s apartment. It’s almost ten in the morning but there is no sun in sight. The waitress places a mug of steaming coffee in front of them. Dev watches the steam as it rises up and then merges with the cold air, temporary warmth swallowed by the endless cold.
“She left. We’re divorced. “ Dev doesn’t even spare her a glance, his fingers wrapped around the mug. The grip looks fairly desperate. Like he’s scared that the cup was going to dematerialize in front of him.
Sherine takes a sip of her coffee. She watches Dev silently, her mind whirring in circles. There was something there, something that was dancing tantalizingly out of reach. She can feel it, like gossamer threads, dancing in front of her. Too substantial for her to ignore, too fragile to reach out and grasp.
Dev finishes his coffee and pays.
When they leave back to the apartment, his cold, thin fingers slip into Sherine’s. His hold is very light, a complete contrast to how he was clutching the coffee mug. Sherine wants to pull away, not liking the conflicting emotions surging through her at the moment.
She finds herself tightening her grasp instead.
Sherine comes back to the apartment on Monday evening and Dev is nowhere to be found. She isn’t particularly worried. The guy probably has better things to do than hang around her couch all day.
Sherine unties her hair, tosses her briefcase on the table and unbuttons her shirt collar. She is pouring herself a glass of wine, when the sound reaches her ears.
It is a pathetic cacophony of retching, chocking and coughing. She is out of the hall in an instant, pounding on the guest bathroom.
“Dev! Dev… what the hell, are you alright?”
His only response is a renowned bout of coughing. Sherine acts purely on instinct and the next second, the door is wide open, knocked right off its hinges from the impact of her shoulders.
Adrenaline has given her the strength and she knows she’s going to regret the force she‘s just’ used on her shoulders, but for now all that matters is the man on the floor.
Dev is on the white tiles floor, retching into the toilet bowl. He looks pale as death and Sherine sinks to her knees.
“Oh, Shit! What… What happened? Are you alright?” It’s a stupid question. The man on the floor is clearly not alright.
And then she sees it.
Splashes of red against the pristine white tiles.
All the wealth in the world, Sherine learns, cannot buy the answer to certain questions
The doctors try to drown her with reassurances and statistics, explaining that Dev wasn’t dying. Certain strains of viruses left certain rare complications behind, even after the infection is gone.
He was responding well to treatment and he could function like a normal person: get married, have kids and live. He would just have to go through these little episodes once in a while, till he got better.
And when would he get better?
Sherine doesn’t give a damn and she wishes they would just put a sock in it. Dev’s tired and asleep on the bed and Sherine wants nothing more than to shut out the world and hold his hands.
Sherine goes back to her apartment.
She visits him in the hospital the next day. She has a feeling of being suspended in some sort of an alternate universe, something completely removed from her actual existence. Time seems to slow down and drag sometimes. At other times, it grinds to a halt.
The painkillers and sedatives keep Dev unconscious most of the night. But the moment Sherine enters the hospital room, it’s like a switch being turned on. The man becomes lucid, icy dark eyes clear and wide, eager to know what’s happening in the real world.
Which is ironical, because a world without Dev doesn’t seem real to Sherine.
“Is this why she left?” Sherine wants to know.
Dev is propped up on the pillows.
“I know you want to kill her but she was too young to understand what I was going through. Besides, it was an arranged marriage for business purposes. You know that. I had to get married and she agreed. You know that.” He says, softly.
Yes, she knows.
She knows, because she had begged him to marry her instead, if it was so important.
And he had refused.
You’re like a sister, he’d said, slashing her heart to ribbons. And though she had left that conversation with parts of herself lost forever, she could never muster any hatred for him.
And she has always wanted him to be happy. All these years, she has put up with her own heartache, only because she has been sure that he was happy somewhere.
The knowledge that it hasn’t been that way for him, makes her furious.
Sherine can feel herself tremble in indignation. How could a woman, any woman, leave her man when he needed her the most?
“It’s hard to be in a relationship that you know is ending.” Dev says sagely, fingers fumbling with the ends of his blanket.
It’s even harder to be in a relationship that never started, Sherine thinks.
On Dev’s birthday, half the family is in her apartment. It’s a riot.
Sherine bakes him a cake, chocolate chip with blue icing. It looks hideous and tastes like clay but Dev gobbles it all down. His sister, Devika and her husband Prem buy him a soccer ball, demanding that he get better and teach their five-year-old son to play like him. Dev promises, clutching the ball to his chest like a kid.
There are birthday wishes and gentle birthday bumps. There are gifts and there are promises and Sherine leans against the door-frame, wondering if God had brought him back to her life just to rub it in that she’d missed out on such a great guy.
But he isn’t. He’s rude, obnoxious and arrogant. He eats with his mouth open, leaves his shirts all over the couch and doesn’t clean the dishes. Ever.
Are you listening, God? The guy’s a jerk. You really don’t want me to end up with him.
When everyone’s gone and the last of the confetti is swept into the bin, Sherine settled on the couch next to him.
“Hey.” He whispers. The room is completely dark, lit only by the faint moonlight streaming in through the large bay windows. Dev has his face turned to the window, his shoulders taut against the soft fabric of his t shirt.
He turns slowly and he looks ethereal in the white light. Sherine sees his eyes shift, as though he was having a hard time adjusting to his surroundings. It always is that way after a nap. Sherine has noticed that it takes Dev a few hours to get his act together, to be comfortable in his own skin, after waking up. It was as if his body was aware that he didn’t completely belong here with her.
“This might be my best birthday.”
His voice is soft and deep, like the rumble of water as it carves its way through the hardest rock faces on the planet. Like some half remembered dream, struggling to make itself real again.
Sherine reaches out, gently pushing him down on the couch. Dev’s fingers tighten on her wrist, yanking her closer. Sherine crawls in next to him.
“Did you hate me?” Dev rasps, arms wrapped tight around Sherine’s neck, his breath painting goosebumps on the sensitive skin near her ears. Sherine tries to fight the tears but they slip out and she wants to kick herself because she just doesn’t want to cry in front of Dev and fuck. Just fuck.
“Kiss me.” It’s all she can manage. Dev obliges and they breath each other in, arms and legs tangled in the white sheets. Sherine holds him close, fingers tracing patterns on the cold, smooth skin. She can trace the muscles running down his sides and she has never felt so helpless in her entire life.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I was such a coward… I’m so sorry!” he whispers, the words leaving him finally. Words that have clamored to be voiced for so many years. Words that have kept him up on countless nights.
Now that they’re out, he goes limp in her arms, like a weight has been lifted off his soul.
“It’s alright…. You don’t have to apologize.” she says.
But he does.
Deep down, she knows that he has owed her that apology. But she also knows that he was not the only one to blame. She had been young then. Eighteen. Foolish. Reckless. In love.
If they had married, it would have been a disaster.
But now…. Now maybe…..
She stares out of the window, remembering the way they had let go of each other when the storm was at its strongest and how it had been impossible to find each other in the wreckage.
“I’m sorry too, Dev. “
He doesn’t reply and she realizes he’s already asleep.
This time when he wakes up, it’s bright and warm, the sun streaming in through the window. Sherine’s next to him, the light catching out her golden skin and Dev reaches out kissing her softly.
He hugs her tighter and says nothing. For the moment, he feels that same transcending peace that he has felt with her all his life. He’d read somewhere that, sometimes a part of your soul exists with someone else and you spend your entire life searching for that particular bit of yourself, the only thing that could ever give you peace.
And now, with her, he’s at peace.
“So where do we go from here?” she whispers sleepily, cuddling closer to him.
They had enough baggage to weigh each other down for a lifetime. The road ahead would be the farthest from easy. But now, in the early morning sunlight, he couldn’t bring himself to think about any of it.
“I don’t know. But I think we can figure that out together, don’t you princess?” He replies honestly.
Sherine blinks groggily and then grins at him.
“Are you alright?” She whispers, stretching out.
“Happy.” Dev whispers, snuggling closer.” I’m really happy.”
Sherine laughs, a little confused but draws closer.
“Okay. I’m happy too.”
And in the end, that’s all that matters.